Durham University student wins $100k global award for energy poverty invention

By Elizabeth McBride

A Durham University student, Jeremiah Thoronka, has won Chegg’s inaugural Global Student Prize.

The 21-year-old, who is studying for a Master’s degree in Sustainability, was selected from over 3,500 nominations for the award – which included a one-off prize of $100,000.

The Global Student Prize was started this year, as a sister award to Chegg’s Global Teacher Prize. The prize is given to a student, who has made a real impact on learning, their peers’ lives and society.

“I have first-hand experience of growing up without energy or electricity.”

Jeremiah thoronka

Thoronka beat his competitors with his invention: a device that both combats energy poverty and is environmentally friendly.

“I have first-hand experience of growing up without energy or electricity,” said Thoronka, who grew up in a slum on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, but won a scholarship to a prestigious school. “Around 18:00, the entire neighbourhood would be in darkness.”

“Every day I was moving between two worlds,” he said. “There was electricity in abundance at school.”

“Access to energy is a human right.”

jeremiah thoronka

According to the UN-backed organisation Sustainable Energy for all, just 26% of Sierra Leone’s population have access to electricity. The lack of electricity has in turn caused environmental degradation and deforestation, due to reliance on firewood and kerosene as fuel sources.

“I wanted to develop a more sustainable energy system, educate people about energy efficiency and stop their overuse of natural resources,” he said. “Access to energy is a human right. We cannot function in an energy-less society.”

Thoronka founded the company Optim Energy when he was 17. The start-up’s invention can be placed under roads and in busy pedestrian areas to create an electrical current. The device absorbs the vibrations created by movement nearby and utilises them to generate electricity.

The Sun is not always shining, water is drying up, fossil fuels are not always going to be used, but people are always moving

jeremiah thoronka

“The Sun is not always shining, water is drying up, fossil fuels are not always going to be used, but people are always moving,” says Thoronka.

Actor Hugh Jackman awarded Thoronka the prize during the virtual award ceremony.

“You’ve made an enormous difference to your community and far beyond,” Jackman said. “I’m sure that you will now use this incredible platform to make an even bigger impact.”

It is far from Thoronka’s first taste of success. Optim Energy was voted as the Most Innovative Energy Start-up 2020 by the United Nations Major Group on Children and Youth and the Sustainable Development Goal 7 Youth Constituency.

“I’m sure that you will now use this incredible platform to make an even bigger impact.”

hugh jackman

He is also a United Nations Academic Impact Millenium Fellow and one of the World Wildlife Fund’s top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders.

Concerning his plans for the prize money, the Sierra Leone native stated: “Over the last few years, I’ve developed a mission – a five-year plan, when I want to touch the lives of 100,000 people in the [biggest] amount of places, [to make] sure that regardless of the geographical location they find themselves, their economic level, or their background, access to energy is a guarantee.”

Image: The Varkey Foundation/ PA

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